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Death Becomes Them

Strong acting elevates brutal tales

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The year-end awards season is just now heating up, yet I doubt we'll see many upcoming performances more impressive than the one brandished by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.

Whitaker stars as the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, who during his bloody reign in the 1970s was responsible for the murders of over 300,000 of his countrymen. Considering Amin's enduring stature as one of the most colorful and fascinating leaders of the 20th century (when I lived in neighboring Kenya during the mid-1980s, a few years after his exile, he was still a constant point of discussion among the locals), it was integral to the film's success that director Kevin Macdonald land an actor able to convey this maniacal leader's effortless charm, monstrous appetite for power and frightening range of moods. Whitaker doesn't especially look like the real Amin, but his superb portrayal immediately convinces us that we're in the presence of a towering figure who shapes the world to match his whims. It's a galvanizing performance.

The film is based on Giles Foden's novel, which employs a fictional character to take us inside the Amin regime: Nicholas Garrigan (nicely played by James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who agrees to serve as Amin's personal physician and soon comes to regret his decision. The film could conceivably be viewed as yet one more work in which a white man is given center stage in what is primarily a black man's tale, yet a couple of elements set this apart from such pandering works as Cry Freedom, Amistad and Ghosts of Mississippi. For one, Garrigan isn't the usual bland Caucasian bathed in the light of liberal guilt but a conflicted young man with his own ofttimes prickly personality. And while McAvoy has more screen time, the sheer force of Whitaker's performance -- to say nothing of the dynamic character he's playing -- guarantees that he remains the story's central focus even when he's not in front of the camera. Paradoxically, you can't take your eyes off him, even when he's not there.

THE BOX OFFICE was able to accommodate two movies about animated insects (Antz and A Bug's Life) released fairly close to each other, and it easily handled two competing films about Earth's imminent destruction by outer space rubble (Armageddon and Deep Impact). But two movies about Truman Capote? Not a chance.

That's a shame, because Infamous, being released approximately one year after Capote, compares favorably to its award-laden predecessor. And in at least one regard, it trumps it. Whereas Capote focused almost exclusively on the social raconteur's experiences while writing the true-crime novel In Cold Blood, Infamous offers more scenes showing Truman flitting about the New York social scene. It also has more of a sense of humor in scenes that could benefit from them -- one delightful interlude finds Truman impressing some small-town folks with the story of how he beat Humphrey Bogart (or "Mr. Lauren Bacall," as he calls him) in arm-wrestling.

Toby Jones is quite good as Truman, even if he doesn't provide as many psychological shadings to his portrayal as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in his Oscar-winning turn. And while Sandra Bullock's impression of Capote confidante Harper Lee isn't as memorable as Catherine Keener's work in the earlier film, other performances stand out, particularly Jeff Daniels as the sheriff investigating the farmland slayings and Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) as the more complex of the two murderers. It's just a shame not many people will ever see all this fine emoting.

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